David Hirsch remembers how far away from civilization his property, located in the mountains above Fort Ross, seemed when he bought it in 1978.
“Things were pretty remote,” the grower/vintner, now 68, says. “To get to my place, you had to go through five cattle gates on dirt roads.”
The paved county road ended six miles away, which meant Hirsch had to travel that far to get to his mailbox. Except for a few sheep farmers whose ancestors had settled the hills in the 19th century, Hirsch was one of the few to live in the isolated region.
Another was Daniel Schoenfeld, owner of Wild Hog Vineyard, now 62.
Schoenfeld says he was “part of that back-to-the-land hippie movement of the 1970s. You think it’s rural now? You should have seen it then.”
The area isn’t far from the mountain settlement of Cazadero, the rainiest spot in California and just a few miles from the Russian River town of Guerneville. But the twisting, steep roads—old logging trails, often blocked by trees felled during massive winter storms—make getting around challenging, to say the least.
The scattered dwellings may be tough places for people to live, an hour or more from modern conveniences like supermarkets. But grapevines thrive on the high ridges of these coastal hills.
It’s the resulting wines, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and, to some degree, Syrah, that have made far northwestern Sonoma County so important, so fast.
Overall, the wines are distinguished by structural components that marry taut acids to sometimes angular tannins, rather than by specific aromas or flavors. The wines that possess a sinewy side can be difficult to appreciate when young, but often soften and deepen within several years.
Earth, Wind and Water
The federal government recognized the Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area (AVA) in January 2012, after a contentious scrum over political boundaries.
At 27,500 acres, it’s medium-sized by California standards, but only 555 acres are planted to grapes, according to the area’s unofficial historian, Linda Schwartz.
Schwartz and her husband, Lester, both 68, own Fort Ross Vineyard. She’s biased, of course, but she deems Fort Ross-Seaview “a very sweet spot to grow grapes.”
Most vineyards are located at more than 1,200 feet above sea level (the AVA boundary is at 920 feet) on the first two coastal ridges, or on the south- and west-facing slope of the third.
That largely puts the vines above the clutches of the incessant fog bank that blankets the beaches and the coast road in dank and chill during the growing season.
“I can see the fog below me on most days, although I can certainly feel the moisture,” says Donnie Schatzberg, 66, who bought his land in 1973. Now called Precious Mountain Vineyard, it sits at around 1,500 feet. Up on the ridges, daytime highs can get quite warm during summer. However, the heat is tempered by the prevailing winds that sweep in off the Pacific, which doesn’t exceed a chilly 60˚F, even in summer.
The result, says Jayson Pahlmeyer, the Napa vintner who bought his Wayfarer Farm Vineyard in 2000, is “just what you want to grow great Burgundian fruit: A warm spot in an otherwise cool area.”
This climate gives the wines structure. While Fort Ross wines may lack the immediately appealing fat of their Russian River Valley counterparts, they will generally age better.
“The tannins out there are young, angular and awkward in youth,” says Williams Selyem’s winemaker, Bob Cabral, who buys fruit from the Hirsch and Precious Mountain vineyards. “They take awhile to become rich.”
If elevation and maritime influence are two keys to the region’s success, a third, soil type, is more difficult to analyze. Because of the ever-shifting San Andreas Fault, soil composition differs greatly throughout the appellation.
Despite the propensity for monster rainstorms, the vineyards are well drained. Ehren Jordan, of Failla Wines, calls his dirt “rainforest desert.”
A Punctuated History
The viticultural history of the area is both old and new. The first grapes planted in Sonoma County—or in Napa, for that matter—were installed just east of the beach by Russian explorers in 1817, whose wooden military installation gave Fort Ross its name. (U.S. postal authorities first recorded the settlement of Sea View in 1883. Almost nothing remains of it.)
The Russians’ grapevines (as well as wheat and other crops) failed in the cold, damp weather. Frequent mudslides and rockslides often tore out the crops. The frustrated Russians eventually gave up their colonial aspirations and retreated to Alaska.
That was end of viticulture in Fort Ross for nearly 150 years. The first person to plant grapes in modern times, Mick Bohan, was a sheep rancher whose family originally had settled the high meadows in the 1870s, after loggers had stripped the land of old-growth redwoods.
In 1973, with the collapse of the sheep market, Bohan was desperate to make a living. He planted Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling on the advice of an oenologist friend.
But Bohan never developed a brand or realized a vision for the region. That was left to a younger generation, the back-to-the-landers like Hirsch, Schoenfeld and Schatzberg.
The turning point in Fort Ross’s fortunes may have occurred in 1994.
“That was the year Kistler, Williams Selyem and Littorai all showed up [to buy our fruit],” Hirsch says.
At about the same time, Schatzberg, at Precious Mountain, offered some grapes to Williams Selyem’s winemaker, Burt Williams.
“He was out here the next day,” Schatzberg says. The two struck a deal that’s been honored to this day by Williams’ successor, Cabral.
With influential wineries identifying the vineyard names on the labels, critics took notice, as did wealthy winery owners from Napa and Sonoma who sought entry to the new golden region.
No longer was Fort Ross the Eden of off-the-gridders. The skies began to drone with helicopters carrying investors looking for cleared ridge tops to establish vineyards.
Jayson Pahlmeyer, Sir Peter Michael and Dave Del Dotto arrived, bringing new standards of viticulture to the region.
Jordan says he couldn’t help but notice the flotilla of bulldozers and backhoes that inched up to Sir Peter’s property.
“But, to me, there’s an older, funky way of doing things,” Jordan says, “and I wonder if it’s not better.”
Fort Ross’s new popularity is not for everyone. I was driving through the area one winter day and was stopped when a fallen tree blocked the road. A chainsaw-wielding guy with a long beard and hair below his shoulders was cutting the tree into pieces.
He was on contract with the county, he said, to keep the roads clear. He’d been living in the area since the 1960s, but was moving to Alaska. When asked why, he grunted, “Gettin’ too crowded.”
Compared to larger areas that specialize in Pinot Noir, like the Russian River Valley and the Santa Maria Valley, Fort Ross-Seaview will never be more than a bit player in terms of quantity. But quality-wise, it has achieved a premier position.
Despite this success, consumers interested in exploring these wines will have to learn the players and vineyards by heart. It’s still not clear whether many wineries will use the new appellation on their labels starting with the 2012 vintage. Some may opt to stick with the more recognized Sonoma Coast AVA.
As Cabral says, “Unfortunately, once you travel out of Northern California, there are still people who think Sonoma is part of Napa.”
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Lawyer-turned-vintner Jayson Pahlmeyer had already achieved acclaim for his Napa Valley wines when he turned to Fort Ross, Here, he believed he could craft, “French Burgundy, the Holy Grail. That’s what I’m chasing!”
He named the land he bought in 2000 Wayfarer Farm Vineyard. “It had been owned by hippies whose first crop was something you’d smoke,” he says. “They called it ‘Wayfarer’ because they’d turned it into a school for wayward kids.
“The real problem up here is, there’s no water,” Pahlmeyer says. He eventually got permission to build a reservoir, which provides just enough water to support 30 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.